The Gonzaga Bulldogs. They are terrifying every season, but perhaps even more than usual this year. The Zags are ranked no. 4 in the AP top 25, they’re 19-2 overall, and 6-0 in WCC play. While the WCC is improved in many ways, it doesn’t look like anyone can challenge the Bulldogs. Gonzaga will be in Provo Thursday night to play BYU. That game will be at 9 p.m. MST on ESPN2.
I traded questions (check out our end of the Q&A here) with our friend Peter Woodburn over at Slipper Still Fits ahead of this big matchup for the Cougars. Read on to learn about Gonzaga’s two losses, how it feels to be in the top 5, who Peter thinks will finish second in the WCC, and more.
VTF: Gonzaga has been in the top 5 since before the season started and were even no. 1 for a bit there. How does that feel? Do you think Gonzaga is ranked where they should be, i.e. are there times where they should have climbed higher or fallen lower?
Peter Woodburn: The Zags opened with their highest preseason ranking ever, and then hit No. 1 fastest than ever. Honestly, it has been a blast and a dream to watch. Even five years ago, if you told me the program would be getting that sort of recognition without playing a game, I’d have called you crazy.
As we all know, the rankings don’t mean much, but I’d say that Gonzaga is pretty firmly in the right spot. Honestly, I think you can make a case for the top five teams to all lay claim to the No. 1 spot at some point or another, and we can toss GU into that mix solely because they beat Duke. The only time I would’ve dropped Gonzaga any lower was after the UNC loss. The Tar Heels are a good team but they creamed Gonzaga. You can’t mince words around that loss.
VTF: Gonzaga has just two losses -- First to Tennessee then to North Carolina. Those losses were back to back, a week apart, both away from home… What is there to be gained from those losses? Is there a secret to beating Gonzaga to be surmised from that stretch?
Peter: In both games, the weakness was defense. Against Tennessee, the Volunteers won because Admiral Schofield, who had scored 100 second-half points, was inexplicably left wide open on a missed communication/screw-up by Rui Hachimura for the game winning three. Against North Carolina, it was the same thing, only for 40 minutes. The Tar Heels just carved up Gonzaga. The Zags still put up 90 points in the game, but that 13 point win by UNC felt more like a 30 point win.
That said, in both games, Killian Tillie wasn’t there. He adds another level of defense to the post that Rui doesn’t quite give, and I’m not sure that other teams can look at Tennessee and UNC and just say, oh that is what we have to do. Tennessee is the No. 3 offense according to KenPom, and UNC is at No. 13. To beat Gonzaga, you have to score more points than they do, which sounds like dumb advice. However, you have to consider that Gonzaga has the best offense in the nation by quite a margin--so it is easier said than done.
VTF: When did you get Killian Tillie back at full strength, in your opinion, and how has he been fitting into this already formidable Bulldog squad?
Peter: Everyone was waiting with baited breath for the return of Tillie, and it has been an up and down affair. On the road against San Francisco, he was 6-of-7 from the floor for 14 points in 19 minutes. Against Santa Clara, he scored one point on 0-of-4 shooting in 24 minutes. It is going to take some coaching from Mark Few and staff to sort it all out, because Tillie is coming off the bench at the moment, which no one would’ve predicted prior to the injury. He was gone quite a while though, and players get used to their roles on the team. His return is great, and I imagine by March it’ll be a moot point to even question his effectiveness. Right now, there is still work to be done to get Tillie at his full motor and operating as he should in the team offense and defense. Luckily, there is time to get the work done.
VTF: How do you think this 2019 team compares to the 2017 team that played in the National Championship game (man you guys must really be starting to develop a grudge against UNC)?
Peter: I don’t know what you are talking about regarding UNC. We have never played them ever. For my two cents, I think the 2017 team was better because of the defense. That team played better defense than freaking Virginia for crying out loud. I think there are a lot of similarities -- Josh Perkins can take over games like Nigel Williams-Goss can and Brandon Clarke can swat shots willy-nilly like Zach Collins. The biggest difference, literally, is these Zags don’t have anyone with the presence like Przemek Karnowski. You can only begin to appreciate how good of a player and how key he was to that squad’s success until after he graduated. This year’s version doesn’t have a player that can take up as much space, completely alter shots in the paint, and be a go-to-guy in the post.
VTF: The bottom-dwelling teams in the WCC are getting better. In fact, there seems to be much improvement across the WCC in general. Gonzaga still stands far and away at the top, but what about everyone else? Just this past week, there was much jumbling around especially between the 2-5 spots. Where do you see those 2-5 spots shaking out?
Peter: It is so great to see the bottom of the WCC not be the normal bottom of the WCC, and the across the board improvement is fantastic -- selfishly for Gonzaga, but also just for the competitiveness of the league overall.
I think second place will be between BYU and San Francisco and it will be judged by which team doesn’t slip up. I watched the Saint Mary’s/USF game, and although Jordan Ford is good and I will never ever say a good thing about the Gaels, in all honesty, they aren’t that impressive this year. They only lost to USF by four but the Dons were in control for the entirety of the game, it was one of those scores that seems closer than the game was. Saint Mary’s can score, but the defense can’t stop anything. I guess that is sort of BYU’s problem as well, so I’ll pick USF as the No. 2 team more firmly.